Texas-based journalist Tim Hashaw, in his book, “The Birth of Black America: The first African Americans and the Pursuit of Freedom at Jamestown,” provides a remarkable and detailed view of the origins of the African diaspora.
The early, dim records of political and social history in central West Africa provide the setting for the book’s beginning: Luanda, the Kwanza River and the Kongo, places still familiar to followers of current events.
The thrust of Hashaw’s story—the cruelty of African slavery—begins about 50 pages into the text and invokes modern images right out the movie, “Blood Diamond,” or the Darfur tragedy: marauding mercenary troops, impressed juvenile soldiers and unspeakable cruelty to the vanquished.
We are as horrified to discover this past as we are to find it still repeated in today’s news.
The book also visits the courts of Spain, Portugal and England during the 15th through 17th centuries.
Readers will recognize characters from Chesapeake history as they leap off the pages in new contexts. Hashaw peels away their more visceral or sometimes tenuous connections to the stream of Angolan slavery: the fate of the Virginia Company of London; the philosophy and interests of King James I; the beheading of Charles I. Samuel Argall, kidnapper of Pocahontas, and onetime governor of Virginia, coins the expression “make hay while the sun shines.” John Rolfe, Pocahontas’ widower and even John Smith appear on the pages. Other characters not commonly found in Chesapeake historians’ accounts, are also featured, such as Lord Robert Rich, Second Earl of Warwick or even New England’s Pilgrim Fathers as they struggle to leave Holland.
It isn’t until much later in the book that a Spanish slaver packs hundreds of Angolan captives—Bantu victims of an internal strife on the African continent—aboard the ship Bautista bound for the mines of Mexico. This ship is taken in a Caribbean sea battle with two English vessels under Dutch letters of marque so flimsy that these corsairs are no better than pirates.
Some of these three-time Angolan captives show up at the Virginia capes near starvation in 1619, an event Hashaw dubs “the Black Mayflower.” “Twenty and odd” Africans are traded into yet another bondage for supplies aboard a ship, which immediately flees.
Hashaw follows the fate of many of these Bantu Angolans as their labor and agricultural skills are exploited. Readers learn about the first use of winter wheat to multi-crop Virginia’s coastal plain in 1627. (And we thought this a modern best management practice!)
At the same time, the Spanish ambassador, Count Gondomar, roils English politics trying to recover the Africans, whom he regards as stolen chattels.
Despite Virginia’s reputation as the cradle of American slavery, some of these strong, clever people still managed to make their mark as freedmen in the mid-Atlantic and New England colonial society.
While Hashaw’s far-reaching claims about the historical impacts and significance of these clearly seminal events await testing by historians, he certainly raises many plausible connections. As with all historical events, it’s hard to draw causality from one element where many accidents of time and place come together to shape the flow of history. This is especially true when the mists of 400 years lie between the present and the occurrences being interpreted.
Hashaw is among the first to tread this investigative ground so thoroughly, and his chronicle and claims are most stimulating.
His account includes the compelling story of two Africans who reveal a plot by angry Nanticoke Indians to poison English wells. Freed by grateful settlers, one Angolan named Mongon, then elderly, sees his son owning two guns, wearing armor and a sword as he serves in the Colonial militia. Still unlettered, Mongon signs his documents in the “Kimbundu fashion with a drawn bow and arrow.” Mongon died a free American on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and left plantations of 550 acres to his heirs.
Hashaw discovered that he was descended from two of the earliest African Americans. He focuses on freedom and initiative in this book, not on the subsequent repression and bondage which characterized the next 200 years. (His book, “Children of Perdition” covers this.)
“The Birth of Black America” discusses the questions of equity freedom and bondage but concludes that these are questions “best answered by what we do now.”